Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Invisible Pain

Invisible Pain

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

On September 11, 2001, I stood in a classroom with teacher Sandra Miner, officers Kasey and Mike from the local police department, and around 25 high school students, watching the unthinkable on television. 

Shortly thereafter, I had the difficult responsibility to speak to an entire school’s student body regarding the horrific events that transpired, with the hope of contextualizing the fear and apprehension that was widespread. 

I did my best.

At the conclusion of my remarks, students filed past the platform upon which I stood.  I heard one young man, “John,” say quietly to another as they exited, “Who gives a [expletive] about the people in New York, anyway!?!” 

I could have responded but did not. 

I sensed invisible pain.

In working with John for the next few years, I realized that his insensitive remarks were indicative of much deeper scars … an invisible pain from which I do not believe he has ever fully recovered. 

Over the years as a school leader, I became intuitive in recognizing the signs of invisible pain in others.  It is aptly named, innocuously influencing some to believe, “Life sucks … then we die.” 

Do you ever see this in the eyes of your students or their families? 

I have. 

Over the years, I found that invisible pain is often advertised by errant comments, counterintuitive behavior, and of course … silence.  Rarely does it present itself through healthy, authentic disclosure.  Rarely does it ask directly for relief.

As we ready ourselves for the holiday season, let us be mindful of the invisible pain that exists in some we serve – especially that borne of society’s twistedness.  Some of our children have abhorrent circumstances. Staff too.  Their invisible pain is exacerbated when others appear more joyful or superficially merry.

The difficult part in all of this is that once we identify invisible pain as educators, we really cannot make it go away.  Sure, we can write a check or offer a gift.  We can sympathize or empathize.  What we cannot do is fix lives, and that is most distressing.  I want to fix lives.  Always have.

Short of offering a fix, however, we as educators, colleagues, and friends CAN provide something …  Hope. 

We can do this through our own unconditional positive regard for those who push others away.  We can also provide functional adult behavior from which students and families can learn and emulate, amidst the cafeteria plan of dysfunction that defines many of their lives.

Above all, we can provide the intellectual and socio-emotional equivalent of the physical therapy needed to help others work through the pain and improve their lives.  We provide the equipment and regimen each day in the form of an education and fellowship.

I realize this week that I may have cast a cloud over the mirth and merriment of school holiday programs, the singing of songs, and the trading of gifts.  It’s just that during these seasonal events [even today while watching two school holiday programs], I have always peered beyond the forest to spot a sprig -- a forlorn look or a bit of quietness in someone, an indicator of something that I desperately wanted to help fix, but instead could only influence modestly through the leadership and kindness I provide.

Can you spot a sprig?

One of my Principal Interns shared a quote with me this week from a school she visited.  I’ll end with it, hoping that you will share it as well with someone deserving.

 “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’…”

Alfred Tennyson. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan is deeply interesting in the human condition and strives to encourage educators to be mindful of such and to “forgive others in advance.”  Please feel free to contact him at anytime at (812) 237-8624 or at 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Skyhook: A K-12 Extraction

The Skyhook: A K-12 Extraction

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

You may remember it from the movie The Dark Knight or from a television episode of The Unit or The Human Target.  The Skyhook technique involves the rescue of a person who is wearing a harness and lift line attached to a self-inflating balloon, which quickly rises to an altitude where an airplane’s “hook” can grab the person from the ground, launch him or her into the air, and carry to safety beyond.

Originally used by the Central Intelligence Agency, it was entitled the Fulton Surface-to-Air Recovery System, developed by inventor Robert Edison Fulton Jr. in the mid-1950’s (Sources below: Eger, 2007; Robert Fulton, n.d.; Wayback Machine, n.d.).

This past Friday, I enjoyed lunch in Mid-Michigan with School Operations Official Christopher Shropshire from The Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University.  Chris currently oversees Michigan Public School Academy performance and has a background in higher education.

Of the many interesting things Chris shared with me, one stuck out above the others.  It involved notions of The Skyhook, although he didn’t use that metaphor.  Our conversation had to do with student preparation for college and our K-12 responsibility to ensure that this happens.

I listened to Chris with great interest as he shared how college admissions officials factor-in considerations of whether or not to enroll certain graduating high school students.

Chris mentioned (and I paraphrase), Colleges consider students’ academic skills at the point of application and asked themselves, “Are these students positioned for academic success in higher education?”  If students’ skills upon high school graduation are such that colleges can meet their needs with the programs they have at their disposal, they will accept them.  If skills are too low, they typically will not. 

Chris is a champion of student academic readiness and “walks this talk” in his professional leadership.

As I drove back to Terre Haute thinking of my lunchtime conversation and how these decisions were made at the college level – decisions that affect livesThe Skyhook came to mind. 

I thought, “Are students upon high school graduation ready for their own Skyhooks?” 

Are they positioned properly for the “life saving ride” that a college education can provide.  I thought of students who were harnessed and ready for colleges to snatch them up.  Then, I thought of others who were not. 

Upon exit from K-12, who is geared-up at the extraction point?

With life’s Skyhooks, positioning is everything; so are one’s preparedness, readiness, and capacity for surviving this whirlwind of intensity.  Do we in K-12 embrace the incredibly arduous training regimen required of students and see as “all important,” a student’s ability to be ready for the metaphorical Skyhook grab?   Or … do we settle for the path of least resistance – simply allowing them to meet graduation requirements?

Other K-12 metaphors regarding The Skyhook experience came to mind as I drove. 

The need to hold off an enemy, just long enough to escape circumstance. 
The need to be armed with just enough firepower to gain an advantage. 
The need to reach the extraction point, no matter how far it was from the theatre of operation or place of imprisonment. 

The aforementioned might include a student’s rising above circumstance, honing skills competitively, and gaining early-on access to college and career information, so that rising above any soft bigotries of low expectations is possible.

I have been an ardent supporter of growth models of student achievement for many years, those that are calculated logically, anyway.  Thinking back to when I would enroll at-risk students into my own high school (those who had 2nd and 3rd grading reading levels upon admission), I would celebrate when I saw a couple of years of academic growth for each year they were enrolled in my school.

Yet something more mattered, as well … “Reaching a Standard.”  

These students were relying upon us for positioning, readiness, and capability.  They deserved preparation for The Skyhook’s extraction, so that they could ascend from where they were in their lives to a better place.   

The clock was ticking; the plane had left the base. 

“How much have they grown?” was the wrong question. 

The better one was, “Are they ready?”



Dr. Ryan Donlan is very fortunate to visit schools and study educational programs as part of his scholarship at Indiana State University, all the while meeting incredible people like Christopher Shropshire.  Great minds like Chris’s allow Dr. Donlan to think deeply as he drives home to teach and serve.  Please feel free to give him a call and share your own great ideas or write him at